Jesus Christ, God’s Welcome

Letty M. Russell
Professor Emerita of Theology, Yale Divinity School 

Address to the 2001 Covenant Conference
November 1, 2001

 Welcome to all of you in the name of Jesus Christ, God’s Welcome! Thank you for inviting me to share that welcome with you on this day of All Saints as we gather, in part, to honor one of our theological saints, H. Richard Niebuhr. His book, Christ and Culture, may be fifty years old, but it has stood up to time better than a lot we have preached, taught and written over the years, and the book isn’t even out of print!

Recently I attended the dedication of the newly created Niebuhr Room at Yale Divinity School. Richard Niebuhr’s former student, John Gustafson gave what he called “An Appreciative Interpretation” of Christ and Culture. (1) Much to my surprise, the place was packed. Then I realized that not only were some attendees former students, but also many more were like me and had been using the book ever since it came out in 1951. According to Gustafson, the staying power of Niebuhr’s typology of five ways Christian theologians have related Christ and culture was not what he said, but that he said there are many different ways to relate to culture.

Niebuhr noticed that Christ and culture are always related. But this relationship is situation variable. It changes as the cultures and human history change. Churches develop their theologies in response to these changes seeking out what it might mean to be a faithful witness to the presence of Christ in particular circumstances. Even the present struggle for freedom to respect differences of conscience by ratifying Amendment 01-A is a witness to the way Christ is at work in our culture and reformed traditions.

In this lecture I want to begin with our theme Christ Transforming Culture, recognizing that what this means is changing daily in our post-modern world, and especially right now since the terror of September 11th and the continuing violence here and in Afghanistan. Then I will search beyond Niebuhr’s typology for biblical metaphors that express some of what it could mean to speak of Christ transforming culture from a liberation, feminist and queer perspective. The first metaphor presents Christ as God’s Wisdom and will speak of how Christ answers our longing for a bridge between the human and the divine to guide us in this time of crisis. The second metaphor presents Christ as God’s Welcome and will speak of the way God reaches out to us in Christ to provide safe space and hospitality in a world of difference and conflict.

Christ Transforming Culture

In this time of sorrow and fear it is interesting to see how H. Richard Niebuhr’s five-fold typology of Christ and culture continues to play out. Certainly the Christ of Culture was much in evidence as we watched patriotic and multi-faith religious services on the TV and debated in our churches whether to display the American flag. To our sorrow, the Christ Against Culture became evident in the broadsides of Jerry Falwell and others claiming that the sins of feminists and of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons were responsible for this disaster. Christ Above Culture emerged as the Roman Catholic bishops and others declared that the political emergency made the bombing of Afghanistan a just response. Christ and Culture in Paradox quickly came into fashion as people dealt with personal crises, confronting the evils of the world, at home, and in their own lives. Magazines like the Christian Century responded with articles like Walter Wink’s discussion of “Threats to Survival: Apocalypse Now ?” (2)

Of course, those advocating Christ Transforming Culture were all over the map, joining in as many rescue tasks as possible, and analyzing what has gone wrong with our nation that it has become an oppressor in the eyes of many peoples suffering from poverty and war around the world! Or they were very quiet, not being sure how Christ could transform the social, political or economic mess of our world cultures, yet clinging to the assurance of God’s power that does not allow even death and destruction to separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ [Rom. 8:38-39].

Culture and the incarnation. In looking at these types from Niebuhr all of us are acknowledging that we must deal with culture because it is the air we breathe, the way we live our lives. There are as many cultures as there are human communities who have developed traditions for living and ways of coping with the break points in their lives.  One way of describing culture is to say that it is:

a way of life of a people which is shaped by its language, collective memory and history; social, political, ecological, and religious practices; art, symbols, laws, and values. (3)

We all of us come to understand who Christ is for us and what Christ means for our lives and actions through the medium of our own culture. Even within that culture we must continually change and modify our interpretation so that it makes sense as our circumstances change.

It would seem that from God’s point of view there is no higher or lower culture; there is no culture that cannot express the goodness of the creation and of human community, as well as the destructiveness of human sin and oppression. This is what the incarnation is about. God has chosen to be with us as Emmanuel; chosen to take on not only human form, but also human history and culture as a way of calling all cultures to recognize God’s desire to make all things new. In the East Harlem Protestant Parish where I served as a pastor for seventeen years, we used to say:

We came here to share God’s love in Christ, we found that Christ was already present and at work in the midst of this urban sub-culture of poverty and racial division that is shaping people’s lives. (4)

In the incarnation Christ became human and entered history and culture, living and dying as a Jewish man of the first century of this Common Era. Through the resurrection Christ continues to be present in human life, taking on the form of the many cultures where people call upon his name. One day he will be present with all cultures as they are made new and differences take on the rainbow diversity of God’s New Creation.   H. Richard Niebuhr points out that Christ’s relation to culture is clear, but what is not clear are the Christian answers to what this might mean? (5) His typology is designed to help us think about a relationship that already has been established by God, and to give an account of our faith in this regard.

Metaphorical Imagination. Reflecting the ecumenical conversations of his own time, Niebuhr describes relationships of Christians among themselves, but he cannot take into account the amazing pluralism and radical differences of religions in the world of the 21st. century. (6) His typology, however, can still help us think about what it means to hold a fundamentalist view that religion is against culture, both in the struggles within contemporary Christian churches and in the struggles within Islam to overcome such a rigid fundamentalism as that which drove the terrorist actions of September 11th.

Cynthia Campbell and Jack Stotts will be helping us with Neibuhr’s topology in their dialogue tomorrow afternoon. For now, I only want to carry the conversation on Christ transforming culture forward by shifting from typological analysis to metaphorical imagination. At this moment in our church life and in our national life we need to include many voices as we work with the still living and evolving past of our traditions to shape a future worth living in. This project needs not only analytical understanding of the root causes of the crises we face, but also a vision of life together in Christ that grips our imagination and shapes our lives.

It would seem to me that biblical metaphors might be one way of speaking about how Christ is present in our lives, transforming culture. The Bible itself uses many metaphors to speak of God, Christ, the reign or kin-dom of God and much more. It is a language that grips the hearers because it expresses a reality that is unknown to us in terms of a known and everyday reality. Thus God can be spoken of as a woman in search of a lost coin, urgently seeking to find us [Lk. 15:8-10]. Christ can be spoken of as a mother hen seeking to care for her chicks [Lk. 13:34]. Or the Spirit can become flames resting on the assembled crowd at Pentecost [Acts 2: 1-4]. What gives metaphors their ability to express what we cannot see by what we can see is the tension between the two parts. For instance, God is like and is not like a woman seeking for the lost coin.  With this image our imagination begins to work to find the meaning not only in the metaphor but in the common, every day, kitchen table parts of our lives. As Sallie McFague puts it in Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age:

What our time lacks, and hence a task that theology must address, is an imaginative construal of the God-world relationship that is credible to us. (7)

The two metaphors of Christ that I would like to lift up today are God’s Wisdom and God’s Welcome. They may help to carry Niebuhr’s typology of Christ transforming culture into our present context. They seem to me to be important not only to the voices of persons who have been marginalized or silenced in the church and theology, but also to making sense in a world of crisis and change. They are not new metaphors, but rather ones that come to us out of scripture and speak to us beyond the cultures out of which they arose. Using my own imagination I find that they capture the way that Christ is present in my life, and I hope that may be the case for you as well.

Christ as God’s Wisdom

Wisdom is an important metaphor for us today because she speaks to us in a moment of crisis in our cultures. Our accustomed ways of relating Christ and culture no longer provide the guideposts we seem to need. The changes are so fast, far reaching and dangerous that we search for guidance and wisdom about how to continue to live our lives before God. In a similar circumstance of change, Wisdom emerged as a way for Israel to speak about God’s presence in their lives after the return from exile, the building of the Second Temple around 520 B.C.E., and the emergence of Judaism in diaspora. Along with the development of the synagogue for worship and rituals for home and family, this personification of God was part of the coping skills of Judaism as it related to God and the many religions and cultures in which it found itself. Judaism emerged as a religion that could serve the people of the diaspora and develop a culture that was not dependent on the monarchy and the priesthood.

Wisdom as a metaphor for God. How could people know what their tradition was and how to serve God when they were cut off from their old culture that was guided by monarchy and temple? People needed guidance in the ways of the culture and the Torah. They needed ways of speaking about their God in the midst of many other religions that dominated the nations where they lived. The often ambiguous and changing figure of Wisdom emerged as one who was able to guide them. Wisdom as human ability or skill gradually came to mean the wise teachings of moral and religious guidance that the writers of such books as Proverbs sought to convey to the coming generation of male Jewish leaders. These teachings were personified not only in the teachings of the wise woman contrasted with the foolish woman in Proverbs 9, but also in the personification of Wisdom as God’s partner in the creation in Proverbs 8.

In Hebrew Scripture Wisdom is not an independent deity, but she is partner in God’s creative and redemptive work. As Proverbs 8: 30-31 puts it, Wisdom is God’s delight, creating as a master worker, rejoicing in creation and “delighting in the human race.” (8) In Wisdom’s Friends: Community and Christology in the Fourth Gospel, Sharon Ringe says:

Wisdom thus functions as the “primary link” between God and humankind, or, more properly, as the way God is actively present in the world. Through Wisdom, the movement happens in both directions: The desire of Wisdom for intimacy with humankind becomes the vehicle for divine presence on earth, and at the same time humankind’s desire for Wisdom draws humankind toward God.

In connection with the Hebrew tradition Wisdom becomes a metaphor for God. She later comes to personify the law or Torah as well. For a Jewish people of the disapora at sea in new cultures she becomes a “bridge over troubled waters;” an assurance of God’s presence in the midst of their lives. (9)

Wisdom as a metaphor for Christ. No wonder the metaphor of Wisdom was one that moved easily into early Christian tradition as a way of explaining Jesus’ role as God’s Messiah. The Messianic tradition seemed to contradict the events of Jesus’ death and crucifixion, for the Messiah was to be a powerful and victorious leader who would usher in a reign of peace and justice. (10) The Wisdom tradition provided elements that made a bridge to Jesus’ divine mission. Wisdom came from God, yet she was often rejected and her prophets stoned. She found no place to lay her head and returned to God from whence she came.

Using Sophialogy the early Christians could begin to create a Christology that made sense of the story of One who had come among us who was both divine and human. (11) Thus Paul opens his first Corinthian letter with the declaration that “Christ is the power of God and the Wisdom of God”[vs. 24]. In verse 30 he declares that God is the source of our life in Christ Jesus, “who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Nor do the Gospels ignore this metaphor. In Matthew Jesus is Wisdom as Torah. He is the new law given in the Sermon on the Mount that will guide and direct his followers. In Matthew 11 it is Jesus who speaks of himself with Wisdom’s offer of a burden that is light.

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light [Mt. 11:28-30: Sirach 6:23-31].

According to Sharon Ringe, John uses the metaphor of Wisdom’s saving presence throughout his Gospel. (12) Adopting the male image of the Logos [Word] rather than the female image of Sophia [Wisdom] John, nevertheless, fills the content of his Christology with Wisdom images from Proverbs and the Deuterocanonical books. In a sort of Johanine “queering of Christology,” Jesus, like Wisdom, is with God in the creation. He descends and then is lifted up to God. He engages in Wisdom’s public ministry, calling out to people in the streets and public places. Jesus teaches Wisdom’s way of truth and life, and speaks of himself in the first person as “I am . . . . , as does Wisdom herself in biblical tradition.

Just as Wisdom is both God and not God, she is also both Christ and not Christ. Using this metaphor of Wisdom or Sophia lifts up a forgotten paradigm that includes a sharing of male and female ways of imaging God which is so needed in our church today. The divine transcends our gender stereotypes of all kinds, and so does a Christology which includes the metaphor of Wisdom as the Christ. (13) Perhaps this is why the church has been so afraid of Sophia. Opening ourselves to this metaphor may allow us to re-imagine our own reformed traditions so that they have a new power of transformation.  I think this is something of what Mary Elva Smith, Coordinator of the Women’s Ministries Unit, was thinking last summer when she told Presbyterian News we need to “break the silence” and again gather together in a global women’s conference that can lift up the contribution of women’s voices to theology and to the wisdom of the church in our time.” (14) Wisdom is calling out; perhaps this is a time that we need to welcome her!

Christ as God’s Welcome

We need also to look for the ways Wisdom assists us in understanding Christ as God’s Welcome. This Christological metaphor, like the one of Wisdom may not be easy to grasp because “wisdom” and “welcome” most frequently appear as adjectives, not as nouns. Yet in both cases, Wisdom and Welcome have been personified as ways of speaking about God’s presence in our world as Jesus Christ who embodies that wisdom and welcome among us. Christ is God’s Welcome because in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we are invited to trust God’s love for us.

Given the events of the last two months with the terrorist attacks in the United States and the bombing terror in Afghanistan, this is a metaphor which connects with our lives. In the midst of fear and danger we seek safety in God and the assurance that the “everlasting arms of God” do not abandon us. At the same time we look to our neighbor and remember that the One who convicts us of God’s Welcome bids us, in the words of Romans 15:7, to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us.”

Welcome as a metaphor for action. This is the power of the welcome metaphor. We know what it means to seek welcome and safe space, and we know that Christ personifies that welcome. Responding to that metaphor leads us to recognize that it is based in action, God’s and our own. Christ as God’s Welcome is a metaphor for God’s action in reaching out to us and for our response. In this sense it inherits another aspect of the metaphor of divine Wisdom. Wisdom is not only to be found calling out to us in the streets. She is also found in table fellowship; at a welcome table where all are invited to partake. Thus Proverbs 9:1-6 tells of Wisdom preparing her feast and sending out messengers saying: “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

The table where we gather round is a symbol of God’s hospitality in welcoming strangers, persons who are on the margins of our churches and cultures. (15) Not only at communion, but at Ground Zero serving coffee and sandwiches; in soup kitchens, hospitals, and prisons; as well as in pot luck dinners, family reunions, and conferences we gather to share bread, and recognize Christ’s presence in our midst. Jesus welcomes all. Dorothy Sayers is famous for saying:

. . . . nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature. (16)

The same could be said for those who were sick, outcast, or foreigners. And, as we know, there is not a word or deed by Jesus in any Gospel that indicates that there was anything “funny” about the nature of LGBT persons.

In Luke, Jesus is pictured moving from house to house, and table to table. Even as the Risen Christ, Jesus returns to break bread at Emmaus, and to eat fish in a Jerusalem room [Lk.24]. Our own story of Christian community is also constructed around ways of expressing God’s hospitality not only with one another, but with all of God’s creatures and creation. This is why A Call to Covenant Community affirms that:

The church we seek to strengthen is built upon the hospitality of Jesus, who said, “Whoever comes to me I will not cast out.” The good news of the gospel is that all – – – those who are near and those who were far off – – – are invited; all are members of the household and citizens of the realm of God.

God’s hospitality in a world of difference and danger is the source of our life, and it is not an optional part of our actions or those of our churches. (17)

Christ and Culture in Transformation. Jesus as God’s Welcome is particularly important to those of us who feel that we are in danger or crisis. The power of the metaphor is dependent on what is happening in our lives and world, and in this culture. This gives us an important clue to our understanding of “Christ transforming culture.” Transformation is a two way street. As Niebuhr recognized, culture is always changing and we are constantly needing to give an account of our faith in Jesus Christ in new circumstances.  We draw our theologies out of biblical and church tradition, and we develop careful arguments for what we believe, but ultimately they have to be seriously imaginable to people in a particular time and culture. (18) This is why The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a Book of Confessions to speak of our faith traditions through history. And this is why I have offered Wisdom and Welcome as two metaphors for incarnation and salvation that might be “seriously imaginable” in our world of today and tomorrow.

The clue here about the two-way street is that both our culture and our Christology are being transformed. Re-imagining Christ has the potential for speaking to the hearts and minds of a growing diversity in culture and religion, both in this country and abroad, and thus transforming culture as we put our metaphors into action. It also has the potential of tranforming our understanding of Christ’s presence in our lives. That is why typologies never fit our reality in an exact way but only provide guidelines for looking at Christ and culture in an ever changing landscape. The story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection does not change but, by the power of the Holy Spirit, our Christologies transform along with culture and community, making God’s welcome clear to those who are near and those who are far.

Impossible possibility of the Church. Although I was ordained as a pastor in 1958, I have never been at all sure I was welcome in the Presbyterian church either as a pastor or a teacher. I was ordained after a long church struggle and then even had trouble because I was not only a woman who went to Harvard, but also was divorced. My ministry in the East Harlem Protestant Parish was suspect in Presbytery because it was ecumenical. My teaching liberation/feminist/queer theology at Yale was too reformed for Presbyterians. Now I could still serve as a pastor, yet cannot so serve because I am a lesbian. I can tell you surely that I would not have been able to stick around the church so long if were not for my deep trust that Christ is God’s welcome in my life. I do not always know what that welcome means, but like those of you gathered here in Pasadena for the Covenant Conference, I don’t give up!

I am sure that if we want the church to matter in the 21st century, we are going to have to use our wisdom and imagination in order to become a community that practices God’s welcome and hospitality in a world of difference and danger. Perhaps in this matter we can give H. Richard Niebuhr the last word. When discussing the paradox of sin and grace in culture he tells us that love is an impossible possibility. If so, then in God’s grace, it is an impossible-possibility that the church will matter in the years to come!


(1) John Gustafson, “Christ and Culture: An Appreciative Interpretation,” October 3, 2001, Yale Divinity School, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511. Unpublished lecture. Tapes available at the above address.

(2) Walter Wink, “Threats to Survival: Apocalypse Now?,” Christian Century, October 17, 2001 [118:28], 16-18.

(3) Letty Russell, “Spirituality, Struggle, and Cultural Violence,” in Mary John Mananzan, et. al., eds., Women Resisting Violence: Spirituality for Life. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1996, p. 21.

(4) I served as a home missionary of the Presbyterian Church and pastor in East Harlem from 1951-1969. Cf. Christian Education in Mission. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967.

(5) H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1951, p. 2.

(6) Lonnie D. Kliever, ” Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture Revisited: Religious Pluralism and Theological Enculturation.” Unpublished paper presented at the American Theological Society, Princeton, N.J. , April 1993.

(7) Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987, p. 32.

(8) Unless otherwise indicated all biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, National Council of Churches in the USA, 1989.

(9) Sharon Ringe, Wisdom’s Friends: Community and Christology in the Fourth Gospel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999, p. 37.

(10) Susan Cady, Marian Ronan, Hal Tussig, Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration. New York: Harper and Row, 1989, p. 34-36.

(11) Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroad, 1983, p. 130-137. Cf. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. New York: Continuum, 1994.

(12) Ringe, Wisdom’s Friends, p. 59-61.

(13) Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York: Crossroad, 1992, p. 150-169.

(14) Alexa Smith and Jerry L. Van Marter, “Breaking the Silence,” Interview with Mary Elva Smith, PresbyNews, [email protected], August 22, 2001

(15) Letty M. Russell, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993, p. 149-150.

(16) Dorothy Sayers, Are Women Human? Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1947, p. 47.

(17) Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1999, p. 31.

(18) David H. Kelsey, ” The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975, p. 167-175, 194.